A Troublesome Play – The Taming of the Shrew

I remember when I first read this play and I was actually rather shocked and appalled. In fact, if there are any of Shakespeare’s plays that are going to rub up against the grain of our modern society then it is certainly going to be this one – the reason being that the whole plot is about how a husband figuratively beats his wife into submission. Sure, his wife is definitely one nasty piece of work, but the thing is, living in a world where more women are killed by their husbands/partners in domestic violence situations than terrorist attacks (at least in developed countries) one wonders why such a play is still staged, and one also wonders why I actually sat down and spent three hours watching it.


Well, I can certainly provide an answer to the second question – I had just recently seen several plays performed at the Pop-Up Globe in Sydney. Each one of these plays was a comedy, being Merchant of Venice, A Comedy of Errors, and A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Well, I have to admit that they were pretty amusing performances, almost farcical. Actually, I should probably say incredibly farcical, and they certainly had their fair share of slapstick as well. The thing is, that a lot of the other versions of these plays that I have seen, seem to focus more on the romance than they do on the comedy, so I was sort of wandering to what extent The Globe in London handled the comedies.


Fortunately, the last time I was in London I had spent something like 200 quid on a DVD box set containing a collection of performances that had been staged at the Globe. What that meant was that I now have a heap of Shakespeare videos that have ended up sitting in my cupboard, unwatched, for a year and a half. Well, that probably isn’t necessarily a bad thing, because it does mean that when I get some Shakespeare urges, or simply want to watch a performance of a play that I have just read, I have some more options available. Mind you, while I have managed to see two plays at the Globe, both of them were tragedies, and one of them was also Macbeth, a play that I don’t particularly like all that much.


So, now that I have the desire to actually see how the Globe pulled off their comedies, I grabbed the collection to see what was available. Well there were a couple that I have yet to read, and there were a couple that I had seen quite recently, so I decided that what I would do is settle upon a play that I have read, was familiar with, and yet had not seen it performed. Oh, and it also had to be a comedy. As it turned out, The Taming of the Shrew certainly ticked all of those boxes – except for the fact that it does happen to be a bit of a problem, as I will go on to explain.


The story is about a nobleman, Baptista Minola, who lives in Padua and he has two daughters. The younger, Bianca, is ravishingly beautiful, and pretty much anybody who is anybody (and unmarried) wants to wed her. Well, that is all well and good, except that he also has an older daughter, Katerina, who, shall we say, is certainly not a pleasant person to hang around. Look, it isn’t as if she is particularly ugly, at least in the physical sense, but she is certainly not the type of person that anybody would even consider spending five minutes alone with, let alone the rest of their life. Well, Baptista decides that since he is going to have a rather difficult time getting his eldest daughter married, he makes the statement that nobody will be able to marry Bianca until such a time as Katerina is married.
Well, that certainly puts a dampener in the works, since pretty much everybody, especially Bianca’s suitors, consider that it is going to be an impossibility for Katerina to ever get married, that is until Petruccio enters the scene and, shock horror, asks Baptista if he can marry Katerina. Not surprisingly, everybody thinks that he is mad, and if they don’t think him mad, they at least think that he is joking. It turns out to be neither, and not only does he trick Katerina into marrying him, but he also manages to turn her into an obedient wife. All the while, in traditional Shakesperian style, there is the second plot going on where Bianca is being courted. Well, there is a bit more to it than that, namely because Lucentio, Bianca’s suitor, disguises himself as a tutor so that he can actually get to Bianca, while he gets his servant to disguise himself as, well, him, and to convince Baptista to let Lucentio marry Bianca. Well, if it seems to pretty complicated, they also get a random stranger to pretend to be Vincentio, Lucentio’s father and to talk up the amount of money that he has for the dowry.


Yeah, there seems to be a bit of a problem with this play, you know, the whole auctioning off your daughters and all that. Then there is the issue with Petrucio and Katerina, or as Petrucio calls her, Kate. Let us consider this first because a part of me feels that there really isn’t any way we can justify what is going on here. Sure, if the play is performed well, then it can be quite funny. Yet a part of me feels that Petrucio is basically a bully. Yeah, he is the one who steps in to free up Bianca to marry somebody else, but is he actually doing right by Bianca in that he is taking a shrew as a wife – I don’t think so.


Apparently, there are a few schools of thought as to how we should interpret the whole thing – that the speech is sincere and that Katerina has not only been tamed, but she has also fallen in love with Petruchio. The other school suggests that it is ironic and that Katherina has not actually been tamed, but rather is, in fact, leading Pettrucio on. I’m not entirely sure about that second interpretation namely because of the context in where it is delivered. Here, the three husbands have a bet as to whose wife is the most loyal – the three husbands call their wives in turn, the first two make excuses as to why they cannot come, the third, Katerina, comes at Pettrucio’s beck and call. This is actually a surprise to all involved because the general assumption was that Katerina would be the last person in their mind to come to her husband’s summons.


But how does Pettrucio tame her? Well, that is somewhat concerning as well, because he does so by starving her, yet it is interesting how it is performed. In a way, nothing is good enough for his wife. In fact, everything is so bad that he will throw it out rather than have Katerina eat it. It seems farcical in one sense, but isn’t this what many of us are like these days – we have become so fussy that we are willing to starve ourselves than to eat something that is beneath us. Okay, I’m not necessarily having a dig at vegetarianism or even veganism, but a part of me feels that this is a case. However, it feels as if Shakespeare is actually having a bit of a dig at those of us who are rather proud, and incredibly picky.


Another thing that I see is that it appears that Pettrucio is actually gaslighting her. This is the idea where the dominant partner in a relationship will change our view of history to suit their own purposes. Okay, I do have an issue with this because there are people who will claim that they are being gaslighted, and in fact in making this claim that is gaslighting themselves. The is the funny thing with memory – it is very, very malleable. The further away from an event we go, the less likely that we are to remember the exact details – this is why gaslighting works so well, and also why people use the claim of being gaslighted to support their version of history. Look, I’m not saying that it doesn’t happen, but some people are so unreliable that I find that anything they say is rather dubious.


Yeah, there is also this issue of gender politics. Here we are, at a time where the Biblical idea of the man being the head of the household was still very much in vogue. Yet, we are also in a time when there was a woman on the throne of England, something that actually seemed to set England apart from the rest of Europe. In a way, women were auctioned off to the highest bidder in those days – it doesn’t mean that it was right, it is just that it happened. However, what we are seeing is the sexual struggle between a husband and a wife, and in a way the wife loses. Though, if we consider the last scene of the play, where the bet occurs, it is interesting to note that it is the tamed wife that responds, as opposed to the ideal wife.


So, we have three women here – the wealthy widow, the beautiful Bianca, and Katherina. Katerina is the one that nobody, other than Petruchio, actually wants, but it turns out that she is the better of the three due to her loyalty and devotion. Let us consider something different by throwing away this whole idea of gender politics and abuse of women, and rather consider relationships as a whole. Relationships are never meant to be easy, but the best ones are the ones that we work at. This is why it is not always possible to have lots and lots of friends because it takes time to build a strong relationship, and it is when we put in the time and the effort that the fruits of a good relationship emerge. This is what happens in this play – Petruchio puts in a lot of time and effort to actually produce a good relationship, and the fruits of his tireless work are produced at the end when to everybody’s surprise, he wins the bet. Okay, actually making a bet on whose wife is the best is also pretty bad, and to be honest, I can’t really see going down all that well in today’s society.


However, just as an after thought, there is a version of this play that has been placed in our modern world. Okay, it is a fairly old movie, and it has been quite a while since I have actually seen it, but Ten Things I Hate About You is actually a version of Taming of the Shrew. Mind you, like a lot of plays that I have seen, they tend to focus more on the romance, as opposed to the comedy, which I do tend to find a little disappointing.


Creative Commons License


A Troublesome Play – The Taming of the Shrew by David Sarkies is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License. This license only applies to the text and any image that is within the public domain. Any images or videos that are the subject of copyright are not covered by this license. Use of these images are for illustrative purposes only are are not intended to assert ownership. If you wish to use this work commercially please feel free to contact me at david dot sarkies at internode dot on dot net


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